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Sailing Single Handed

I am particularly unlucky with my friends and family. Either they are phobically afraid of the water, are extremely busy or hate the idea of sailing! As a result I am slowly developing techniques and set ups to allow me to safely sail single handed.

I have no intentions of sailing around the world nor do I care if I really go fast. I want to feel comfortable and know that I can cope with most conditions I am likely to come across.

It helps that I am calm in real emergencies.

I sail a 14 foot dinghy and a Tanzer22 keel boat. The dinghy is designed to be sailed solo with the occasional passenger. The Tanzer22 is best sailed with at least another person.

The following page is a disjointed record of how I manage and what I think I still need to do. As experience grows and projects get completed I will update this page. It's very much a work in progress and it reflects my experience, or lack of experience in my keel-boat. The reality is that the Tanzer can handle much more difficult conditions than I can!

First and foremost, my safety equipment.

There are government regulations that require a boat to carry safety gear, things like enough life jackets, a throwing line, flares, lights, ladder, charts, an anchor and a few other things. I don't need to talk about these, it's the law, just do it.

The personal flotation device I have is a self inflating harness affair that doubles as a safety line harness. When I am sailing I ALWAYS wear my life jacket unless the boat is almost stopped. The reason is that if I end up in the water I very possibly will have been knocked off by the boom, or fallen after slipping or getting banged up. I float like a fat duck but a lifejacket will keep my head out of the water if I'm groggy.

If I go on the deck, I clip on a safety line. It's a fancy bright yellow web line with 2 impressive clips. My safety line is just a rope tied from the mast to the cleat just behind the bow. I've never fallen overboard but it will come.

I once had a scary near disaster when I was trying to deal with my flailing jib lines. The boat had turned sideways and was rolling with enthusiasm. I was thrown to the side and bounced against one of the safety lines around the boat. I was lucky to get a bruise and a good scare.

One of my figure eight knots had come undone and the jib had worried the end out of the little pulley. I now use a double overhand knot and find it more reliable.

I always wear a knife. I find that the marlinspike is really useful to help undo a knot of a tangle when the lines are wet or my hands are cold, and the cleat wrench/slot thing is really useful on the few cleats I have.

Since I mostly day sail, I do not ever expect to be very far from land. The Great Lakes can be formidable waters and occasionally you might lose sight of land but for the most part I don't expect to get lost.

I have a radio. Not only can it send voice messages but it has an emergency button which sends position and information. When I sail I keep the radio clipped onto my PFD.

furled sail

I have a furler

I think installing a furler is the single most useful thing I did to simplify single handed sailing. The convenience and safety of quickly setting or dousing the genoa from the cockpit outweighs the inconvenience of a less than perfect set of the partially furled sail.

In high wind it takes a surprisingly hard pull to roll up the genoa, even when pointing into the wind, and I cannot pull it just by hand. The line to the furler should be strong and well fastened. Mine leads to a spot with easy access to the winch.

Before I bought a roller furler I looked into a simpler system.

The older sailors at my club talk about lines being run inside the clips that hold the jib to the forward stay and attaches to the top of the sail. This line is led to the cockpit as is the jib halyard. When the jib is to be struck, the halyard is released and a pull on this dousing line pulls the top of the sail down. In this way the jib can be brought down quickly from the cockpit. It's still in danger of flopping around and dragging in the water though unless it gets tied up. I chose the easier system of just rolling up the sail with less danger of lines getting fouled up inside the clips.

I love the convenience of setting just a little sail to allow me to go on deck and deal with the main and have the boat quietly powered.


I have found that having a reliable motor adds a level of comfort to my life. I take care of it with great enthusiasm. The gas is changed half way through the season and after each use, I run the motor till all the gas is out of it by unplugging the gas line and letting the motor run dry while I put the sails away.

I have a plan if I can't get the motor started in an emergency. Either I will heave to and call for help, or will drop my anchor. If it's possible to sail into a harbour safely I will try otherwise I'll sail away from land where the waves are less confused and try and revive the motor.

Heaving To

It's as close to a magic trick as I know how to do. You tack with the jib not released, then after the boat comes round you tie the rudder so it opposes the jib. The boat settles right down and drifts quietly. You can go to the bathroom, have a sandwich, or just catch your breath or check the weather report. If I have too much genoa out the boat might go around in circles, in that case I furl some genoa in and she settles right down. Magic. It's just like parking your boat on the water. This is a simple manoeuvre and is easy to learn.

We hove to this summer in high wind (for me), 14 knots with gusts of 22. We saw a boat load of people a couple of km out and drifting away from land. Not enough life jackets and a cheap plastic inflatable with inadequate plastic and aluminium paddles. We hove to and stood by until help arrived. We were sailing with 4 people already and conditions were very tricky for either boarding, or towing. My boat settled right down and behaved beautifully until help came. In that case I was not solo but heaving to requires no personnal attention after lashing the tiller.

Heaving to is a good first step in dealing with an emergency and might be useful in some situations of Man Overboard.

email me if you find mistakes, I'll fix them and we'll all benefit: Christine